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Looking down

For a birder, I spend an awful lot of time looking down. Sometimes it’s because I’m obsessing about plants and bugs, especially in summer. At this time of year it’s usually because I’m trying to get a sense of who is hanging around on Piping Plover nesting beaches and what they are up to. This of course includes the plovers – studying the sand can reveal if they are serious about nesting on that beach and even whether they have mated recently. But I’m also looking for evidence of those that would eat the plovers. And the best way to keep track of all that is, well, with tracks.

On a recent visit to a small barrier beach in Brewster, I encountered a surprisingly diverse array of tracks and sign in the dry sand of the upper beach. There were, of course, the usuals - the number of human and dog tracks here was a little surprising given that the beach was technically closed for construction, even to foot traffic, but people find a way. Beyond people and pooches, the other usuals are crow, coyote and sometimes fox tracks. Every beach is different, but crow may be the most universally common track near the wrack line on a dry Cape beach, way more common than gull tracks on the beaches I frequent.

But there were more than just the typical tracks that day. I quickly encountered one of my favorites on a low dune ridge just above the beach - the footprints of a Great Horned Owl. I find their tracks weirdly often on spring beaches. You might expect only Snowy Owls on a beach, but at night, Great Horneds love to saunter down sandy beaches like an August tourist, and are well known predators of beach nesting birds, especially tern colonies. Look for a big, odd-looking bird track shaped like a “K”, or a backwards “K” if it’s the left foot.

Next, I came across a mammal track you don’t see much, perhaps another critter you don’t think of as a beach bum. Coming over the dune and down the beach towards the water were the classic loping tracks of a river otter - groups of three and four prints, then a space, then another group of 3-4, each with five toes, like all weasels. It was on its way from the marsh in back to Cape Cod Bay for a little big game fishing, no doubt.

In several places along the beach were some mysterious, meandering mounds left by a blind tunneler – Eastern moles. I don’t typically see these tunnels on beaches, but this species does prefer drier soil to the wetland loving star-nosed mole. Who knows what it was doing - maybe the marine amphipods and other invertebrates were an attractive change of pace from the usual earthworms, enough to leave the dunes and risk the unpleasant surprise of a tunnel full of saltwater.

Check out Mark Elbroch’s two excellent track and sign books – one on mammals, one on birds - if you want to go deep. While you might think a good birder always looks up, I say don’t look down upon tracks. Well, do look down, but not in the sense of, um – whatever, you know what I mean…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.